"Mom, I want to tell you something that you're probably not going to like. About your parenting."
So began our discussion last night as I tucked our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, into bed.
"Eight-and-a-half," she would correct me if she saw what I just wrote. Why are children in such a hurry to grow up?
I couldn't help but smile. Not that I'm a masochist or anything. I hate being criticized for anything, especially my parenting. But I love how Katie exudes calm confidence when advocating for herself. I was raised to think that children should not "talk back" to adults. Adults know what's best and kids should be quiet and listen and not argue.
It never occurred to me to question this power struggle until I was a teenager. My dad and I screamed at each other so much during my young adulthood that it eroded our relationship. It's only been in the last decade or so, after both Dad and I were prescribed at separate times by separate doctors the anti-anxiety medication, sertraline, that we've been able to pick up a few crumbled pieces of our relationship and build another foundation.
I still struggle with self-advocating my needs, but each year gets better. It's difficult to unlearn destructive habits such as ignoring your personal needs until you feel like you're going to explode and so you default to screaming at someone rather than calmly stating how you feel. But if I want a kid who calmly talks to me about how she feels and not some screaming banshee running loose in the house, I've got to set an example.
Stay calm. Listen to what she has to say before jumping to conclusions, I told myself. "What do you want to tell me?" I asked Katie.
"Well," she said from under three layers of covers, all of which have chew holes from the dog. "I want to tell you to quit calling Dad 'Daddy' when you're talking about him," Katie explained.
"What? Why?" I asked. I totally wasn't expecting that response.
"Because I like to call him Dad now. Like how I like to call you Mom," she explained.
"Oh, so you want me to call him what you call him?" I asked.
"I just don't want to feel like a baby," she said, lowering her eyes.
"I understand," I said, sitting on the edge of her full size futon. When I was a baby, I shared a bedroom with two of my older sisters. Our only child has her own room and her own bunk bed. With its full size futon as the bottom bunk, it sleeps three people even though she only needs a bed for one. We wanted her to have something for sleepovers. We need her friends to feel comfortable, to like us and stick around and be there for our daughter in the way the sibling we can't provide her would do. In the same way Will always goes out for donuts the morning after a sleepover. Bribery. As long as you stay loyal to our daughter you will always have access to a comfy bed and donuts the next day.
"I remember I was in third grade, too, when I decided to start calling my dad Dad instead of Daddy.
"What made you decide?" Katie asked. She loves to hear stories of what it was like when her dad and I were kids. I think it reassures her that we really do understand what it's like. We've been there. We know how much it can suck to be a small person in a big person's world.
"My sister Glenda came over to visit," I explained. "You know, she's fifteen years older than I am, so she was a grown up when I was in third grade."
"She kept calling our dad Dad. Not Daddy. I thought that sounded very big. I wanted to sound big too, so I stopped calling our dad Daddy," I said.
"Yeah, that's why I want to stop calling Dad Daddy," Katie said. "I don't like it when people treat me like a baby."
"Well, just so you know, lots of people still call their fathers Daddy throughout their life. My mom still called my grandpa Daddy when he came to live with us the last few weeks before he died. She was in her fifties and she still called him Daddy."
"Yeah, but no one in my class still calls their Dads Daddy," Katie said.
"No one? How do you know."
"Because when they talk about their dads they say Dad," Katie said, like duh, Mom. "And when their moms drop them off at school, they don't say things like, Daddy will be here to pick you up this afternoon." Katie raised her voice in an artificially sweet version of my own voice. I felt the sting of that shot.
"Oh, I see," I said. "OK. I get it. I'll try to stop calling him Daddy. Give me some slack, though. It's hard to change what you've been calling someone for eight years," I said.
I sighed. "Well, goodnight, Katie--hey, wait a minute. If we have to start calling each other Mom and Dad, not Mommy and Daddy, that means we get to start calling you Kate, not Katie!"
I figured Katie would immediately protest. When she was four, she began insisting that we call her Katie, not Kate. When Will and I decided to name our child Katherine after my sister and great-grandmother, we decided on the nickname Kate to eliminate confusion. My sister's nickname is Kit or Kitty, which is the same nickname our great-grandmother had. I wanted my daughter to have her own nickname.
Will and I both love the name Kate. Will said, "It seems like all the pretty girls at school were named Kate." I said, "Kate Carleton sounds presidential."
But when Baby Kate turned four and began forming her own opinions, she informed us that from there on out she would be known as Katie, not Kate.
I admit, I was disappointed at first. Katie Carleton sounds like a great babysitter, or cheerleader, or romance novelist. Katie Carleton does not sound presidential. But I also understand that the best way to raise a kid who has the confidence to lead a nation is by letting them make important decisions when they are little bitty. So I caved and started calling her Katie.
Over the years I've slipped up a few times and accidentally called her Kate. Each time she has corrected me. "It's Katie," she'd insist.
But this time was different. This time, when I pointed out to her that if she gets to call us the more mature versions of our nicknames, then it's only fair that we get to do the same with her nickname.
"OK," she said. "You can call me Kate again."
"Hooray!" I shouted. "I've always loved the name Kate."
"I know, Mom." Kate smiled. A little too maturely for my taste.